Between 1987 and 1993, computer music pioneer and opera singer Alice Shields wrote three electronic operas, Shaman, Mass for the Dead, and Apocalypse. Each of these operas is written for some combination of tape track and live performers. These works combined Shields’ strong background in both electronics and opera. In trying to place her works in a historical context, it becomes clear that there is a lack of scholarship on the development of electronic opera, its origins, and where Shields’ work fits in chronologically and aesthetically. This article will discuss electronic operas from the 1950s to the early 1990s, looking at their performance forces and the role of electronics. Alice Shields’ works, notably Apocalypse, will be placed into this context, with a brief analysis of the narrative use of technology in the opera, and discussion of her unique combination of virtual instruments and classical electronic studio techniques.
Keywords: electronic opera, Alice Shields, tape music, concrete opera, multimedia opera, electronic music history
This project began as an exploration of the electronic operas of Alice Shields, and quickly morphed into a survey of electronic opera in general, particularly focusing on its inception. Many operas which include electronic sound have been created since the 1950s. While there are some excellent studies on individual operas or specific types of electronic opera, there is a general lack of canonization of the entire genre. Many operas have been left out of this discussion, due to concision, lack of documentation, or lack of knowledge. The operas which have been chosen are either technological milestones, have some connecting threads with other electronic operas, or are emblematic of a certain style. Particular focus is given to the earliest examples of electronic opera, in an attempt to illustrate the beginnings of the genre. The final section gives a brief analysis on the construction of Alice Shields’ electronic operas, specifically Apocalypse.
It is hard to define exactly what constitutes an opera, let alone an electronic opera. The definition of opera, as with many genres, has become more fluid with increased experimentation, especially since the mid- to late- twentieth century and beyond. Opera in this article includes works that are referred to as opera or some similar term, either by creators or critics. When reading through literature and composers’ accounts, different terms come up to describe opera that uses electronics, such as “electronic opera,” “electroacoustic opera,” and “multimedia opera.” There are many categories into which electronic opera could be divided, but this article will use the umbrella term “electronic opera” to describe operas that contain some form of electronic or electroacoustic music, whether prerecorded or live, focusing on works in which the electronics play an integral role in the fabric of the sound.
The beginnings of electronic opera
As tape and electronic music practice grew in the 1950s and 1960s, composers began using these new materials for theatrical expression. Tape music was created for radio, as incidental music for theater, and was incorporated into operas. As technology developed further, electronic operas incorporated synthesizers, electronic instruments, and live processing. The earliest electronic operas were tape operas, with combinations of recorded and electronically generated sound. Early electronic operas used a tape track in one of two ways, either as a replacement for the ensemble, perhaps with a few live instruments, or as a member of the ensemble. The first approach allowed for sparser forces but had the limitation of fixed timing.
The earliest electronic opera, or “concrete opera,” Orphée, was created by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, with a libretto by Schaeffer (Delhaye, 2012). Schaeffer used his tape track as a replacement for the ensemble. An initial version for voice and tape premiered in 1951, and in 1953, a reworked version for two voices, tape, viola, and harpsichord was performed (Delhaye, 2012). Schaeffer’s often arduous process of creating the first version is documented in his diaries, published in À la recherche d’une musique concrète. On his impetus for creating the work, he writes, ‘Suffering horribly from the discordance of concrete music and also from its inhumanity, I am seeking a test of strength’ (Schaeffer, 1952, pp. 79-80). Schaeffer’s ‘test of strength’ was the fusing of opera and concrete music into a new, complimentary avenue of musical and theatrical expression. One difficulty which he encountered was the mixed expectations of creating a work which combined new sounds with an entrenched tradition. After the premiere of Orphée 51, Schaeffer felt that only the last five minutes of the opera were successful. He wrote ‘some people found us too far removed from traditional music; others, on the contrary, like Olivier Messiaen and Henry Michaux, advised absolute originality and breaking off all connections with traditional music’ (Schaeffer, 2012, p. 100). Despite a lukewarm reception, he continued to work on the opera, developing it into the more ambitious Orphée 53 for the 1953 Donaueschingen Festival (Delhaye, 2012). The staging of this version was fraught, partly due to miscommunication between Schaeffer and festival organizer Heinrich Strobel. This resulted in a lack of rehearsal time and staging and lighting conditions which the audience perceived as amateurish, contributing to the poor reception of the work (Delhaye, 2012). Schaeffer was deeply affected by the ordeal, and never wrote another concrete opera.
Orphée was truly a pioneering work. Perhaps if the premiere of Orphée 53 had been more successful, the genre of concrete opera would have been codified in the 1950s. Other composers began incorporating tape into their operas in the late 1950s and 1960s, and most often used tape as a specific character, or as part of the ensemble. A number of these composers incorporated electronics into more traditionally operatic frameworks, using the otherness and newness of electronic and concrete sounds as a narrative device.
In his 1958 chamber opera Diary of a Madman, Humphrey Searle used recorded electronic and concrete sounds to underscore the mental deterioration of the main character (Aspen Produces, 1967). Searle, an English composer, began his electronic music practice making incidental music for radio plays, beginning with Night Thoughts in 1955 (Searle, 1982). Searle used his knowledge of basic tape music techniques to create Diary of a Madman, a chamber opera based on Nikolai Gogol’s novel, for which Searle wrote the libretto. Searle was commissioned to write the opera by conductor Hermann Scherchen, who gave Searle certain specifications, ‘there were to be no more than four singing characters and an orchestra of 15, but electronic sounds could be used, and there could be silent characters’ (Searle, 1982). Using tape in Diary of a Madman was partly a response to the conditions set by Scherchen, but Searle took full advantage of the new medium as a narrative tool.
One of the earliest operas to incorporate a tape track into a full-scale orchestral production was Swedish composer Karl Birger-Blomdahl’s 1959 opera Aniara. Aniara, one of the earliest sci-fi operas, is based on a dystopian epic poem by Harry Martinson, with a libretto by Erik Lindegren (Quist, 2004). Blomdahl, like Searle, used recorded electronic sounds narratively, in this case as the voice of Mima, a computer. Blomdahl relied on the futuristic connotations of electronic sound to complement the opera’s space setting. The musical language of Aniara is varied, in Ruth K. Inglefield’s words, ‘The work is based on a twelve-tone row; nearly every style of the epoch is presented, including mirror forms, pointillistic orchestration, exaggerated jazz dances, simple folk tunes and a hymn in C major’ (1972, p. 74). Blomdahl integrated electronic sounds as a particularly narratively appropriate part of the expansive range of musical materials. Aniara helped solidify Blomdahl’s place as one of Sweden’s preeminent modernist composers and paved the way for further experiments in electronic music, which led to the founding of EMS, Sweden’s first electronic music studio (Wallner, 1969). The opera was immediately successful with many subsequent performances (Inglefield, 1972).
German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann created one of the earliest multimedia operas, Die Soldaten, with a libretto by Jakob Michael, first staged in 1965. The opera incorporated recorded sounds, images, sculptures, dance, and multi-level staging, among many other elements (Pollock, 2019). Zimmerman had high ambitions, hoping, like Schaeffer, to create a new means of theatrical expression, though his approach was to take the traditional forces of opera and extend them in every possible way. In a 1982 newspaper article about the US premiere of Die Soldaten, John Rockwell writes that Zimmerman ‘makes extensive use of the massive orchestral sound color effects popular in the 1960’s, as well as electronic music, films, quotations, popular elements and grand brouhaha’s reminiscent of John Cage-like “happenings”’ (Rockwell, 1982, p. 19). Die Soldaten is a culturally significant opera and still performed regularly, despite the massive forces required.
Potentially the first opera to use live processing was the 1969 political opera Reconstructie, a collaboration between composers Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Misha Mengelberg, Peter Schat and Jan van Vlijmen, and librettists Hugo Claus and Harry Mulisch (Adlington, 2007). The opera, a story of Che Guevara and the South American struggle against US imperialism, was widely discussed after its premiere, in part because it was state funded. (Adlington, 2007). Robert Adlington’s article on the opera describes the musical elements, ‘flutes, bassoons, horns and violins are omitted, and replaced by saxophones, electric guitars and keyboards. Vocal and instrumental sound is frequently altered (or, as the composers preferred to say, ‘alienated’) by electronic amplification and distortion.’ (2007, p. 173). The opera was polystylistic in its combination of experimental staging and sound. The opera received only a single run, but was widely attended, and a moment of cultural significance for experimental music in the Netherlands. The success of the opera contributed to the subsequent founding of STEIM (STudio for Electro-Instrumental Music), a state funded electronic music studio in Amsterdam dedicated to performance (Montgomery, 2013).
The composer with an approach seemingly most like Schaeffer’s is Israeli composer Joseph Tal. Tal, a pioneer in electronic music in Israel, collaborated with librettist Israel Eliraz on several electronic operas, often, like much of Tal’s music, with biblical subjects (Gluck, 2005). His first electronic opera, the 1969 opera Ashmedai, was a large-scale work with an electronic overture made with a Moog synthesizer at the electronic music studio at Hebrew University (Tal, n.d.). Tal’s 1972 opera Massada is a concrete opera, similar to Orphée in methodology. In Tal’s words, ‘the instrumental part of the entire opera is composed for electronic music, without any orchestral participation. I wanted to avoid as much as possible both the already standardized sound-symbolics of the avant-garde, and the traditional orchestral symbolics’ (Tal, 1975, p. 45).
Other 1960s operas not included in this discussion include Bruno Maderna’s Don Perlimplin (1962), Boris Blacher’s Zwischenfälle bei einer Notlandung (1964), Humphrey Searle’s The Photo of the Colonel (1964), R. Murray Schafer’s Loving (1965), Bruno Maderna’s Hyperion (1965), Harry Somers’ Louis Riel (1967), Stanley Silverman and Pril Smiley’s Elephant Steps (1968), Giancarlo Menotti’s Help, Help, the Globolinks (1965), and Richard Arnell’s Combat Zone (1969). There is potential for extensive research into early electronic opera practice, and the collection and organization of documentation and materials.
Electronic opera composers
As electronic practice and research progressed in the 1970s and 1980s, some composers devoted their creative output to electronic operas, developing distinctive idioms, including Robert Ashley, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and John Eaton. Ashley developed a unique style of multimedia opera, beginning with his 1967 electronic opera That Morning Thing, which used recorded sounds, speech, projected images, and dancers (Gann, 2012). Ashley solidified his operatic style with the trilogy Perfect Lives, Atalanta, and Now Eleanor’s Idea, the latter of which is split into four separate operas. Ashley wrote his own texts, which are neither linear nor plot driven. In his book on Ashley, Kyle Gann states that ‘In the context of his stories, Ashley’s librettos make sense, but the complete sense may hinge on taking in considerable background extrinsic to the work itself’ (2012, p. 58). Ashley’s operas have several defining features. A consistent tape track, live improvised piano, organ, and synthesizer music developed by composer and keyboardist ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny, lines sung ‘on and around a kind of reciting pitch, what Ashley calls a “character-defining” pitch’ and a steady pulse, which for most of the operas is 72 bpm (Gann, 2012, p. 60). Gann describes Ashley’s distinctive use of tape track, ‘what Ashley calls “the orchestra”—the instrumental music that is played digitally behind the speaking characters—is built up layer by layer, and in some cases never notated at all’ (Gann, 2012, p. 60). Ashley’s scores are non-traditional, often consisting of lines of text written in relation to the pulse. Using a fixed pulse, metered speech, and improvised music circumvented some of the difficulties of combining live performers with constant fixed accompaniment. Some similarities can be seen in the electronic operas of Mikel Rouse, who developed his own approach to vernacular speech which he called ‘counterpoetry’ (Career, n.d).
Stockhausen’s operatic output consists of his mammoth thirty-hour biblical cycle Licht, consisting of seven operas, one for each day of the week. Stockhausen worked on the cycle from 1977 to 2003 (Thomas, 2008). The works of Licht are eclectic in terms of forces. The development of electronics in the operas reflects the changing time period. The earlier operas use tape recorded electronic sounds, whereas the final piece, Licht-Bilder, part of Sonntag, uses live electronics, including ring modulation of flute and trumpet (Brümmer, 2004). Some highlights from Licht include the infamous Helikopter-Streichquartett (1995), and the ‘two-and-a-half-hour-long depiction of the relation of Eve and Lucifer in the Elektronische Musik mit Tonszenen vom Freitag Aus LICHT (1991-1994) (Hartwell, 2012, p. 402). Some sections of Licht, like the beginning and end of Freitag, are for unaccompanied fixed media, often for a multichannel setup. In other sections, electronics are blended seamlessly into the orchestral fabric, treated as an equal part of the ensemble. Robin Hartwell describes one of Licht’s characteristics as
[…] having several simultaneous layers of sound. These are superimposed, very often with the faster level related to the visual action and louder than other layers. The background layers, because they involve long sustained chords, may be on prerecorded tape or played by electronic keyboards, forming a backwash of sound behind the faster layers.”Hartwell, 2012, p. 408
Paul Griffiths gives a colorful description of the electronics used in Montag:
The theatre becomes a womb, bathing the audience in the amniotic fluid of diffuse electronic tones, and allowing the outer world to penetrate only as sound: farmyard noises, motors, national anthems and even a snatch of Hitler, promptly flushed down the loo, all make this Stockhausen’s biggest essay in musique concrète since Hymnen.Griffiths, 2012, p. 243
Stockhausen’s highly inventive operatic excess is one of his most significant legacies, combining his expertise in areas of acoustic and electronic music. The operatic cycle has never been performed in entirety. In 2019, Pierre Audio directed Aus Licht, a selection of around 15 hours of material from Licht, the most that has ever been performed at one time (Barone, 2019).
John Eaton produced a large number of theatrical works, including fourteen operas, many of which use live electronics. Eaton’s experiments with microtonality and his synthesizer collaboration with Robert Moog helped him to develop his style of electronic opera, first seen in his 1973 TV opera Myshkin with a libretto by Patrick Creagh. Myshkinis an orchestral, microtonal opera which uses tape and synthesizers. The use of electronics allowed Eaton to access more accurate microtonal tunings (Morgan, 1985). Eaton uses the juxtaposition of sixth tones in the synthesizers and quarter tones in the orchestra to highlight fluctuating mental states of the character of Myshkin (Morgan, 1985). In his 1978 opera Danton and Robespierre, like in Myshkin, Eaton uses the possibilities of electronic sound to represent Robespierre’s development from naive purity to realism. In Eaton’s words,
I’ve used in the electronic music connected with Robespierre a just-intonational system of my own devising—pulling down from the overtone series of a certain key the upper partials. Naturally, the further you get away from that key the more dissonant the subsequent keys become until it eventually does just howl. It’s an incredible effect.Canfield and Eaton, 1978, p. 50
Operas such as The Cry of Clytaemenestra (1980), The Tempest (1985), and Peer Gynt (1990) and more use various combinations of tape, synthesizers, and other live electronics. In 1993, Eaton founded the Pocket Opera Players, for which he wrote a number of intimate, small-scale operas and theatrical works, sometimes including optional electronics (Remembering John Eaton, n.d.).
Electronic opera in the 1980s and beyond
Technological developments in the 1970s and 1980s paved the way for many different directions in electronic opera. The greater accessibility and expansion of synthesizers, computers, and MIDI technology created many avenues for experimentation. Live electronics in opera became much more prevalent in the 90s and 2000s, especially as computers became more powerful, but there are a few key examples of operas using live electronics from the 1980s, including Luigi Nono’s Prometeo and Tod Machover’s Valis. Luigi Nono’s first electronic opera, Al gran sole carico d’amore for orchestra and tape, premiered in 1975 (Cossettini, 2017). His next electronic opera – or, as Nono called it, ‘Aural Drama’, the highly ambitious work Prometeo, premiered in 1984 (Spangemacher, 1984, p. 51). In their chapter on spatialization in Prometeo, Martha Brech and Henrik von Coler describe that for the first performance, ‘a huge wooden construction was built, containing both the audience and the performers. Orchestra, soloists, and choir were seated in different locations and levels that were “connected” by electroacoustic sounds that wandered or were sometimes distant’ (Brech and von Coler, 2018, p. 193). The opera includes a huge number of performers and complex technological setup. This setup includes ‘harmonizer, vocoder, reverb, delay, a sound motion device called Halaphon etc.), and at least twelve loudspeakers’ (Brech, 2018, p. 1). Nono used the halaphon device – which controls loudness for each speaker and can be used to make trajectories – for the spatialization (Brech and von Coler, 2018, p. 195). Prometeo also used the 4i System, a “computer capable of generating sounds in real-time,” which Prometeo was one of the earliest works to use (Canazza, De Poli, and Vidolin, 2022, p. 26). The sheer technological complexity of this work is unparalleled by any opera of this time period.
Tod Machover has written at least four electronic operas to date, all using live electronics. His earliest electronic opera is the 1987 sci-fi opera Valis based on the book by Philip K. Dick. For Valis, Machover developed hyperinstruments, augmented instruments whose performance data can be analyzed and transformed. Machover has used hyperinstruments in all his electronic operas (Tod Machover, n.d.). A 1992 review of Valis reads:
[…] the opera is scored for one keyboard player and one percussionist, each connected to an array of specially designed and commercially available music technology. Other electronic material was developed in the studio, then pre-recorded and played from 24-track digital tape at specific moments during the performance. Six singers are used, always amplified, though their voices are subject to signal processing only infrequently throughout the work.Joseph Rothstein (1992, p. 104)
Machover’s operatic output is highly diverse in terms of scale and staging, and consistent in innovative use of technology.
As synthesizers and computers became more commercially accessible, composers began to use synthesized or virtual instruments, often combining them with live instruments. Stuart Diamond composed his 1982 opera Masters of the Astral Plane by playing on a Lyricon controlling ARP 2600 and OB-1 synthesizers, meticulously recording each line (Diamond, personal communication, April 10, 2023). Christopher Yavelow’s 1987 opera Countdown, with libretto by Laura Harrington, was ‘the first opera in cyberspace,’ the first internet accessible opera (Yavelow, n.d.). The opera uses a computer-generated score which controls a Kurzweil-250 digital sampler, linked to the conductor’s baton. This approach allows more flexibility than using a fixed tape track (Yavelow, n.d.). The use of synthesized instrument sounds has persisted in opera, and many other genres, especially as the sounds have become more advanced. The synthesized sounds from the 1980s were much harsher and less nuanced than virtual instruments today, resulting in a mini generation of unique electronic operas which capture a specific moment in time. Alice Shields’ use of synthesized instruments in combination with analog studio technology is a particularly novel combination of sounds.
The electronic operas of Alice Shields
Alice Shields, a pioneer in electronic music, studied and worked at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center until 1992. Her output includes many electronic works, often including fixed media with voice, and at least eleven operas, for which she writes her own librettos (Shields – Bio, n.d.). These include full-length electronic operas Shaman, Mass for the Dead, and Apocalypse, and the electronic micro-opera Shivatanz (Shields – Operas, n.d). Like Humphrey Searle, Shields worked on creating incidental tape music for opera in her early days at the Center. In the 1960s, she assisted Ussachevsky in creating incidental tape parts for Robert Ward’s The Crucible and Martin Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra, using her own electronically manipulated singing voice for both operas, a practice that would continue into much of her electronic output (Shields – Bio, n.d.).
Shields was in a unique position to write electronic operas, with her strong background in electronic studio techniques, and her career as an opera singer. The beginnings of Shields’ voice and electronics practice can be heard on her 1968-piece Study for Voice and Tape. In the liner notes for a CD of music from the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, Shields described materials of the piece:
[…] the sound sources for the tape part include phrases created on an analog Buchla synthesizer, my own singing voice, and a shaken bell-tree. Pitch and timbral modifications occur through Klangumwandler and elaborate feedback (created through Ussachevsky’s Variable Feedback Tape Recorder and multiple ring-modulations) resulting in spiraling patterns that rise or fall in pitch and speed.Shields, 1998
Shields’ first electronic opera, Shaman, for four singers, chorus, four live instruments, and tape, premiered in 1987 (Shields – Operas, n.d). Two of Shaman’s sections are a fixed media prelude, Coyote, “made from transformations of the composer’s voice, coyote calls, male chorus and electronic sounds” (Shields, 1984) and The Black Lake, for ‘tenor, cello & electronic music on tape’ (Shields – Works, n.d.). The tape part consists of various drones and evocative nature sounds, such as birdcalls, frog-croaks, and wolf-howls. The vocal and cello parts are more akin to traditional opera than the manipulated vocals of Coyote, with long, highly melismatic melodies, in a semi-tonal context.
Mass for the Dead, for four singers, and a flexible combination of four live instruments and tape, premiered in 1992 (Shields – Operas, n.d.). In the score, Shields indicates that the opera can be performed with either the tape track, the live instruments – bassoon, organ, cello, and percussion, or with the tape track and any or all the live instruments (Shields, 1992). The character of the Medium exists on a tape track, represented in live performance by a dancer. The chorus can be live, or prerecorded. The flexibility of forces creates the possibility for vastly different realizations. The only easily accessible recording of Mass for the Dead uses the tape track without live instruments. Shields used MIDI technology in composing Mass for the Dead, and as a result, was able to substitute the live instruments with synthesized ones. The synthesized instruments sound very dated to today’s ears, especially the cello and bassoon, but the synthesized organ is diversified through ring modulation and other techniques, creating timbral variation that keeps the sound engaging, whilst creating a spooky aesthetic. Shields adds to this with her spoken voice, her inflection is deliberate and slow, sometimes hypnotically monotonic or whispered. The flexible instructions in the score seem to indicate a desire for practical performability.
Apocalypse, Shields’ third, final, and most ambitious electronic opera, uses a combination of synthesized instrument sounds, electric guitar, and voice recordings. Apocalypse has never been performed live. A version of parts of the opera was released on CD in 1993 by Composer Recordings Inc., and again in 2007 by New World Records (Apocalypse, n.d.). This recording, according to Shields, is ‘essentially the tape part of Apocalypse’ (Shields, 2007). In a live performance context, the singers would double with the tape, though it is hard to know exactly how that would function, as there is no score for Apocalypse.
The opera was originally designed to include “movement patterns from the Hindu Bharata Natyam dance-drama,” choreographed by Shields, who studied bharatanatyam for 10 years (Shields, 2007). The cross-cultural influences in Apocalypse have been discussed in detail by Danielle Sofer, in her article on ongoing interculturality in Apocalypse(2018). The opera includes three roles, the Woman, the Seaweed, ‘a sort of biological Aphrodite who emerges from the ocean covered in green sea-slime and algae’, and the god Shiva, as well as a Greek-style chorus (Shields, 2007). The plot details the Woman’s character development through a journey of transformation through her interactions with the Seaweed and Shiva. During the climax of the opera, the chorus tears Shiva apart and eats him, the Woman puts him back together, and Shiva and the Woman engage in a sexual ritual. As the chorus tears Shiva apart, they represent “prudent objectors,” to the sexual union, a product of Shields’ perception of the social climate around Sex in 1990s New York (Sofer, 2016).
The soundworld of Apocalypse contains many sound sources, but the following list details the main components:
- Synthesized instrument sounds, notably piano, percussion, strings, and sitar.
- Spoken word using Shields’ voice, processed by analog devices.
- Operatic and rock singing, by Shields and Michael Wilson.
- The chorus, created by layering of Shields’ voice.
- Various ‘nature’ sounds.
Shields’ voice is the most pervasive force in the opera, creating a connecting thread between otherwise disparate elements. In addition to speech, singing, and the chorus, Shields uses her voice to make the sounds of seagulls and sea lions. In one of the most striking scenes of the opera, Shields uses sounds of her and Jim Mathus eating yogurt and broccoli to simulate the chorus eating the flesh of Shiva (Shields, 2007). In each of these instances, Shields uses a variety of processing techniques, ranging from subtle to extreme. To create these effects, Shields used the analog devices at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center for techniques such as filtering, frequency shifting, pitch scaling, reverb, and ring modulation. Shields often used the Klangumwander, a Bode frequency shifter, to create layers of speech (Sofer, 2018).
Shields uses differences in the processing of speech to create narrative differences between the characters, especially the Seaweed and Shiva. The Woman’s interaction with the Seaweed, in which the Seaweed imparts her wisdom, is sonically calm. Each of their three dialogues use peaceful wave sounds as a background, which sound slightly timbrally different each time, interrupting any sense of naturality. The dialogues between the Woman and the Seaweed, though using natural speech, are placed into an otherworldly context by the slight separating of the left and right channels, creating a minute delay. As the dialogues progress, Shields adds an echo effect, creating ripples with “s” sounds in the text.
In contrast to the Seaweed scenes, the scenes with Shiva are intense and chaotic, underscored by the difference in vocal processing. Part of the reason for the heavy processing of Shiva’s voices is its depth, as Shields uses her own pitched-down voice for his spoken sections. Shiva’s voice is created with frequency-shifted layers in echoing patterns, creating a much more robotic and vigorous sound. In Shields’ words, ‘Shiva teaches identification with all life, the breaking of the illusion of separateness, through the vivid metaphor of sexuality’ (Softer, 2018). The woman’s voice is more heavily processed as she speaks to Shiva and becomes one with him.
The electronic sounds of the piano, percussion, strings, and sitar are easy to connect to their acoustic counterparts, but are clearly and unabashedly synthesized, in a specifically mechanical and jarring idiom. Shields creates a musical language for these instruments that combines baroque, popular, and classical idioms, among others. The rhythms are often driving and energetic, Though the music is calmer during the Woman’s interactions with the Seaweed.
Shields plays with context by creating realistic sounds through a combination of nature recordings and her own vocal emulations. The created nature sounds are sonically identifiable, but Shields generally processes them in ways that link them to their new, electronic environment. In Scene 4: The Sea, Shields imitates bird sounds very realistically with her voice, making them eerie through slight electronic processing. One of the most dramatic sequences in Apocalypse is Scene 50: Dismemberment and Eating. The scene opens with the chorus dismembering and consuming Shiva, created by overtly realistic and unprocessed eating sounds. The sounds are both comical and grotesque. The lack of any dramatic processing or accompaniment allows the section to function as a highly evocative sonic image.
The main reason this opera has not been performed is explained by Shields in an interview with Peter Shea, ‘I go onto other projects and don’t market my stuff, being into the next thing I’m creating’ (2013). Sofer (2018) argues that the difficulty of synchronizing tape with live performers could be another roadblock, though historical precedent shows that it is possible with willing performers and adequate preparation. Despite its lack of performance, Apocalypse is an important part of electronic opera history, given its unique sound profile, and the fact that the recording and liner notes are so easily accessible.
As technology has developed, creators continuously incorporate the latest tools and methodologies into their electronic operas. With his Orphée experiment, Schaeffer recognized the potential for fusing a new soundworld with a highly established narrative artform. The unsatisfying conclusion of his experiment arose due to the difficulty in combining the two areas, along with production issues. Humphrey Searle and Karl-Birger Blomdahl harnessed some of that potential by combining concrete sounds into a more recognizable context, using electronics to embody a specific role. New possibilities in sound and video technology led to experiments in structure and presentation, seen in the live-processed Reconstructie, the works of Robert Ashley, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s maximalist Die Soldaten. In these works, technology was one tool of many used to create varied multimedia experiences. As synthesizers and other electronic instruments became more complex and robust, they were incorporated into opera. For Stockhausen, this meant developing a new kind of orchestra which included synthesizers, prerecorded sounds, and eventually live electronics. John Eaton used the capabilities of the synthesizer to create specific tuning systems. Live processing began increasing in electronic opera in the 1980s, featuring in ambitious setups like those of Luigi Nono and Todd Machover. MIDI technology and increasingly powerful computers created new possibilities in the use of electronic instruments, live electronics, and fixed media. Alice Shields used the new technology to combine classical electronic studio practice with the possibilities in virtual instrument sounds. Fixed media operas continue to be produced, though their creation has become infinitely more efficient, with more and more avenues for sound creation. Despite all the advances in technology, many venues are ill-equipped to handle complex electronic set-ups, and so the balance between flexible timing and logistical consideration continues.
Opera continues to be difficult to fund and produce, and electronic opera poses varied challenges, even as the tools become more advanced. In experimental and small-scale spaces, composers are consistently using live electronics, electronic instruments, self-made instruments, and video. Often, a single creator or a small group of creators produce all electronic elements. The topics of these works are often personal and/or social. These works often play with structure and narrative, developing new methods of sonic and visual storytelling. Large-scale experiments in opera are venturing into the rapidly developing areas of extended and virtual reality. These areas allow for the creation of new operas but are also used to recontextualize the acoustic operas of the past. These approaches are designed to be hyper-immersive and are incorporated into many types of performance. This area of development is rapidly growing, especially considering that many of the tools are shared with the videogame industry.
Through the many developments in technology, composers and librettists continue to be drawn to opera. Opera performers continue to train and develop their craft. Though creators of opera continue to contend with deeply rooted traditions, they must also contend with shifting audience expectations. Innovation in technology pushes innovation in art, and vice versa. Staggering advances in technology happen with increasing rapidity. As creators become more and more technically literate, new tools allow the field of electronic opera to be one which continues to grow. Even as new electronic operas are created, many electronic operas are not canonized or well documented. Many gaps in this research have yet to be filled. Tracing the path of electronic opera reveals its significance as a thread that begins in 1950s and has grown exponentially. As this research continues to grow and expand into the future, its purpose will be to connect the threads of electronic opera with opera research at large, the history of electronic and electroacoustic music, and developments in technology.
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About the author
Treya Nash is an English composer and creative coder based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her areas of focus include chamber music, distributed performance, and electronic opera. Her work has been performed internationally by many renowned ensembles. She is currently pursuing her PhD at Louisiana State University, with Mara Gibson, Jesse Allison, and Steven David Beck. She has previously studied with Paul Koonce, Mark Engebretson, and Alejandro Rutty, and worked as Program Director for Charlotte New Music.